Afghan security problem: Poorly built police stations

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 26, 2010 

WASHINGTON — U.S. government auditors who've been examining Afghan construction projects have found serious problems with a crucial part of the Obama administration's plans to bolster the country's security forces so American troops can begin to leave next July.

McClatchy has obtained an upcoming report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction that says six police stations in a dangerous stretch of southern Afghanistan were so poorly constructed by the Afghan contractor, Basirat Construction Firm, that they can't be occupied.

The SIGAR report, which is about to be released, concludes that conditions at the stations are so hazardous that "inadequate concrete and foundation work calls into question the structural integrity of the buildings and raises the risk of total building collapse in the event of a significant earthquake."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers nonetheless passed up chances to penalize Basirat and paid it almost $5 million of the $5.5 million contract price, according to the report.

SIGAR concludes that the company would have to make at least $1 million in repairs before the buildings could be occupied. However, Basirat "has little incentive" to address the problems because it's been paid and it's unlikely to win any more contracts from the U.S. government, the report says.

The Army Corps of Engineers has embarked on a multi-billion-dollar construction program to house the Afghan National Army and National Police, which are the backbone of President Barack Obama's plans to start withdrawing American troops from the country next July.

The six police stations were designated for districts in tense Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are battling the Taliban-led Afghan insurgency.

The stations represent a pattern that current and former U.S. officials said had been repeated across Afghanistan: failures resulting from an overextended Afghan contractor working in a remote area where security has worsened because of a growing insurgency and with insufficient U.S. Army oversight.

Making matters worse, some Afghan firms are loaded down with "contract after contract" in the rush to build, even though they're not equipped to handle major projects, said John Brummet, a SIGAR assistant inspector general for audits.

In the case of the Basirat contract, the Army Corps of Engineers subcontracted oversight to local Afghans.

When auditors later arrived at the sites, they found electrical wires strung through windows, cracks in walls, gas lines hanging in the open, windows installed at a tilt and shoddy roofing.

At one site, in Helmand province's Nad Ali district, an Afghan police unit "forcibly occupied" the uncompleted structure and intentionally destroyed half the roof, a development that seems to bode ill for long-term maintenance of police headquarters across Afghanistan, even when they're properly constructed.

The report also documents a case in which local quality monitors hired by the Corps of Engineers submitted photographs that purported to document construction progress. However, the photographs' digital time stamps had been altered or erased.

The Army Corps of Engineers agreed with SIGAR's assessment of the construction problems, but said the lack of security in the area prevented it from monitoring the projects.

SIGAR, however, countered that security concerns don't explain why the corps "failed to retain adequate project funds as hedge against poor contractor performance and authorized payments without sufficient justification."

Yamae er Shadi, a Basirat program manager, acknowledged in a telephone interview that the company had won the contracts "at a very low price" and now "we have a shortage of money" to complete the work. He added that he's job hunting because he doesn't expect the company to pay him in the future.

Kenneth Moorefield, a Pentagon assistant inspector general, told Congress late last year that, "There are few Afghan companies with the requisite experience to effectively undertake and complete projects at the required standards."

"While many Afghans gladly accept the offer of employment, most are not qualified to contribute more than manual labor," he said.

In some cases, even the laborers may not be up to the job.

Falls Church, Va.-based DynCorp International LLC had to train its construction workers to hammer nails and pour concrete at the site of a project to build an Afghan army garrison, SIGAR found in an earlier audit.

Basirat's problems didn't begin or end with the police station contract.

The State Department suspended the company in August from new U.S. government contracts because of allegations of corruption related to its work on a $26.5 million renovation of Pol-i-Charki prison outside Kabul. Basirat was awarded a contract to oversee the renovation in July 2009, despite the Army Corps of Engineers having removed it months earlier from two other failed police station projects.

The department is investigating allegations, which Basirat has denied, that it improperly colluded with another Afghan-based firm, Al Watan Construction Co., to help it win some of the prison renovation work. Al Watan has been suspended, as well.

Basirat also allegedly bribed a former U.S. official who'd overseen the prison project to help it prepare an appeal when it was kicked off yet another contract, according to Obaidur Rahman, the company's president.

In an e-mail response to questions, Rahman denied any impropriety. "I hope this problem will be resolved soon and I already apologized for not being aware of an 'ethics rule' violation to be applied when working with U.S. government projects," he wrote.

Rahman said that of the six police stations in Helmand and Kandahar, two had been completed and delivered, the Army Corps of Engineers was giving a final review to a third, a fourth was almost completed and the two others, in Kandahar, had encountered trouble with a subcontractor.

SIGAR is under pressure to demonstrate its ability to root out fraud and waste in Afghanistan after four senators recently wrote to Obama demanding the resignation of the agency's head, Arnold Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general.

The Justice Department reviewed the agency recently and decided not to revoke its law enforcement authority.

SIGAR released two reports Tuesday. One warned that massive foreign assistance in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, including an estimated $100 million U.S. investment in fiscal year 2009, is at risk of being wasted because of haphazard coordination and the province’s inability to absorb the aid.

The other report found confusion among U.S. civilians assigned to Afghanistan about their duties and whom they report to. The Obama administration has launched a civilian "surge" as part of its counterinsurgency strategy, with civilian personnel increasing from 320 to 1,500 by January 2012.

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